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Croatia: Resurfacing After a Long Dive

By Jo Rector and John Allen
The Washington Post
Sunday, May 10, 1998; Page E01
   


We plunged into the clear, astonishingly blue water of the Adriatic Sea, heading straight to the bottom and back two millenniums.

Ten dozen clay amphorae, probably once filled with wine, awaited us at 115 feet deep, remnants of an ancient Roman shipwreck in the central Dalmatian Islands.

As we and 11 fellow divers descended from the sunny surface into the darker, deeper blue toward the amphorae, we became the first recreational scuba divers permitted access to these antiquities, still intact on the bottom. The salty water grew cool, chilly, cold as we reached a room-size steel mesh cage that protects the amphorae from thieves. It was all we could do to not hold our breath as the clay vessels took shape in their watery hold.

All were lined up as they had been when the ship sank, and as we lingered over each amphora, some encrusted with purplish sponges, others sprouting algae and feathery hydroids, we tried to imagine the flavor of wine from 200 B.C. And did the sailors reach safety after their ship conveniently went down in a narrow bay that would have been an easy swim to shore -- for a sailor who could swim?

We were fortunate, as volunteers in a week-long phase of a study of diving physiology, to have been guided by Croatia's leading underwater archaeologist to this and several other submerged antiquities -- and then, on land, to be among the early wave of travelers rediscovering Croatia's ancient cities as the country, and tourism there, reemerge from the ravages of war.

Much of Croatia was wracked by fierce fighting in 1991 as the Serb-led Yugoslav Army attempted to reverse the former province of Croatia's declaration of independence. The three-month blockade and shelling of the ancient city of Dubrovnik and its historic treasures drew worldwide attention to what had been a largely regional war. A cease-fire took effect early in 1992, and most of the military action then moved on to Bosnia. Areas we visited had been free of conflict for five years and had recovered beautifully.

Underwater archaeologist Marijan Orlic led us to his nation's submerged bounty, much of which he surveyed as part of a project to locate and describe remnants of earlier civilization on and around some of the Adriatic islands. The underwater riches alone were

well beyond the limits of our week of island-hopping to fully explore.

But what we saw made us want to see more and also to understand this new nation's fervor to protect it, as it has Dubrovnik, the stunning walled city with its toes in the shimmering Adriatic. As it has repaired damage to Dubrovnik, Croatia also has claimed its underwater antiquities, cataloguing amphorae from shipwrecks, preserving specimens and protecting the sites -- with gunboats when necessary. One visited during our dive, just to be sure we had permission.

In Dubrovnik, workers have reconstructed damaged buildings and the ancient walls, leaving a trace of the new -- in drying mortar and stones that don't quite match -- on the old. Still, the ancient fortress's magic was palpable as we strolled the stone streets, climbed steps to the top of the walls and were awed by every view from the parapet.

The city of St. Blaise at its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries held 10,000 inhabitants; now there are 5,000 within the walls. Then known as Ragusa, Dubrovnik was Venice's leading rival for maritime domination of the Adriatic. Today, the 50,000 other inhabitants of Dubrovnik live in homes or small apartment buildings outside the walls in what seems an elegant and bustling small city. Inside the fortress, a broad, marble boulevard encourages a constant stream of pedestrians at all hours except early afternoon, when residents retire to their homes for lunch and visitors seek out the cooling shade of the many cafes or the several museums that have reopened.

The evening promenade is first given over to families and children -- and the frightening spectacle of little girls on in-line skates being pulled dangerously fast by boys furiously pedaling bicycles. Later, teenagers who moments earlier had been the gaily costumed folk-dancers at Jadran, a huge restaurant with an open-air stage set against the ancient wall near Pile Gate, the main entrance to the old city, turn out in sleek black slacks and snug white tops in the Adriatic version of hanging out at the mall. After the last notes of Beethoven's First are carried out of the Rector's (mayor's) Palace courtyard on the night air, the musicians and their listeners glide into the square, buoyed both by the performance and by the polished paving stones, worn smooth by centuries of footfalls.

We visited in mid-September, and the conditions were perfect: The air was warm, but not too hot, and even on the water so arid that our heavy wetsuits dried in about four hours. Since we arrived after the summer tourist rush, we had the palaces, museums, churches and art collections nearly to ourselves. After we had admired the exquisite columns and arches that form the inner courtyard of the 15th-century Dominican monastery, a kind man opened several rooms of riches for our inspection; a highlight was the beautifully conserved polyptych "The Baptism of Christ," painted in 1448. In the sunlit room, the panels glistened with gold, vivid reds and brooding blacks around the holy figure standing in a shallow stream.

Outside the 700-year-old battlements, Dubrovnik's rocky beaches were lively with water polo games and families enjoying a late afternoon dip, but the shores and harbors were not as crowded as we were told they would have been in August, when much of Italy crosses the Adriatic for vacation. Restaurants welcomed us, and virtually every waiter we met in Croatia spoke not only English, but Italian, French and German as well. Language was not a problem. Money was not a problem; our Cirrus cards worked flawlessly to dispense kuna, the Croatian currency, from ATMs easily found in both Dubrovnik and in Split.

Croatia is a travel bargain, and September rates were excellent at the hotels we visited in Dubrovnik and in the much larger city of Split. Some of Croatia's hotels had housed refugees from the war; as a result, they are being updated as refugees depart. Only about 2 percent of refugees are still in suburban hotels, none along the coast, according to the Croatian National Tourist Office.

We wanted to visit Dubrovnik first before joining the divers, but the Dubrovnik airport's reputation as a hazard had scared us. It needn't have: The airport last summer installed modern instrument landing system equipment and has opened an area for international arrivals. Unaware of those improvements, we flew into Split, which also has ILS gear, and spent our first night in Croatia on the balcony of our well-equipped, modern room at the Hotel Split. As we gazed over a bay filled with sailboats, a flare lit the night sky. Unsure what to expect from a place so recently at war, we worried that shelling would soon follow. None did. And when another flare went up, we called it fireworks.

Our first dive onto an ancient wreck was off the island of Hvar. In the saloon of our ship, the Viktoria, Prof. Orlic had diagrammed the ribs of a 5th-century ship and some scattered pottery fragments that we would see as we sank on top of a sandy slope to about 100 feet at the edge of a placid but steeply descending bay. In the afternoon light, the sparkling white sand made the bottom bright, and we could see the outline of the ancient ship: a long-buried keel, broad but decaying dark wooden ribs partly silted with sand, and all around shards of amphorae. Long known to sponge divers, the site was surveyed by Orlic in 1974. By then, all but scraps of amphorae had been looted.

The water was crystal clear and the professor was clearly in his element as he pawed in the sand to unearth ever larger pieces of the past. These he exhibited and then tossed into the weightlessness with abandon; they settled back into the welcoming softness of the sand as we got goose bumps -- partly from the cold, but mostly from observing a connoisseur adore antiquity.

After dives like this on ancient shipwrecks or into canyons and along walls that were as splashed with brilliant color as a Jackson Pollock canvas, we were medical research subjects in an ongoing study by the nonprofit Divers Alert Network into what factors make divers susceptible to maladies such as decompression sickness, or "the bends." A few minutes after we surfaced, researcher Chris Wachholz, wearing earphones, listened to our blood flow with Doppler equipment and recorded the sound in an effort to detect nitrogen bubbles in our bloodstream.

When a diver breathes compressed air under the increased pressure at depth, tissues throughout the body absorb extra nitrogen. When the diver ascends normally, nitrogen leaves these tissues in the form of bubbles in the blood and is exhaled through the lungs. Stay too deep, too long or ascend too quickly, and nitrogen bubbles can leave the tissues faster than the bloodstream can carry them to the lungs. Nitrogen bubbles, loose in the body, congregate, often in joints, such as elbows and knees, causing hobbling pain. More seriously, bubbles can group in the spinal cord or the brain, causing paralysis or death.

Because Croatia's commercial sport diving industry is just getting started following the war, organizing this excursion involved a monumental effort on the part of the Durham, N.C.-based DAN researchers, Wachholz and Petar Denoble -- although Denoble, from the Dalmatian island of Korcula, had the advantage of knowing the waters and speaking the language. We boarded the Viktoria in Split, Croatia's second-largest port. The sprawling city has many lovely mansions, but thousands of the 250,000 residents live in uninspiring communist-era high-rise apartment buildings sprouting from the hills surrounding a 3rd-century palace that is considered one of the best examples of Roman palatial architecture still standing. Built without mortar by the Roman emperor Diocletian, the palace is a complete little city within a few square blocks, bounded by walls several stories high.

Diocletian, a persecutor of Christians, is now entombed under the cathedral in the center of his palace grounds. Archaeological excavation and restoration are underway in the catacombs. Above ground are a peristyle, museums, residences, charming old shops and modern, new ones. Within the palace walls, the stone streets are worn smooth, like Dubrovnik's, and vehicles are not a possibility. Along a portside promenade, cafes were the perfect spot for watching people, boats, sunsets and the sea we were about to enter.

After moments of chaos as we divers crowded onto the Split Dive Club's small boat to strap on our tanks in preparation for diving, we would leap into the bright blue brine. The water was so saline that floating was effortless; the visibility was excellent, perhaps 100 feet on most dives. The water was 75 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface and as cold as 63 degrees Fahrenheit at 100 feet, but 6mm wet suits and hoods kept us pleasantly warm.

Since shipwrecks happen in all centuries, one dive was on a German Schnell Botte, or torpedo boat, from World War II. It had attracted the most abundant and biggest fish life and was largely intact: The aft machine gun moved in all directions, and we were cautioned not to touch the torpedo release button! A wreck in such pristine condition is unheard of in areas frequented by thousands of divers. But in our group of 12 Americans and one Chilean, either no one had heard of diving the Adriatic before we read about this research trip in DAN's magazine, or, as military officers, had known it in communist days to be off limits. Much of what we saw was well preserved.

When the Viktoria docked in Hvar one night, Denoble arranged for our group to visit archaeologist Marinko Petric's workshop to learn how he conserves amphorae lifted from the sea by immersing them in many changes of water in a vat the size of a hot tub for six. The workshop, in an ancient and crumbling church, held a trove of amphorae, statues, architectural fragments and shards, all under a drift of dust.

On other nights, in Brac and Stari Grad, we were free to explore the charming stone towns and sample the cuisine, although all of our meals were served aboard the 80-foot Viktoria by a chef well-versed in the native Croatian cuisine, whose foundation seems to be beef and red peppers.

But our fondest memory will be of our visit to Denoble's home town of Korcula. We were treated to an evening tour of the medieval walled town: a stroll through the impressive abbatial treasury and a visit to the central church; sips of rose-flavored brandy, luscious figs and sugary confections; fresh fish and Dingac, a robust red wine of Dalmatia, in the Adio Mare restaurant; the companionship of a friendly, if tipsy, group of divers and a climb up the watchtower of what was said to be Marco Polo's house overlooking a harbor shaded by a total lunar eclipse.

Details: Croatia

GETTING THERE: Croatia Airlines offers nonstop service from Rome to Dubrovnik for about $260 round trip; from other European capitals, service is available to Dubrovnik via Zagreb, and fares vary. US Airways is quoting a restricted round-trip fare of $1,085 from Washington National (via Philadelphia) to Rome, with connecting service to Dubrovnik on Croatia Airlines.

WHEN TO GO: Any time, although summer is warmer. In Dubrovnik, Nino Puhiera of Nimar says the water is warm enough for a 5mm wet suit from June through September. In other months, he recommends a 6.5mm wet suit or a dry suit. Dubrovnik hosts a summer cultural festival from mid-July to late August.

WHERE TO STAY: In Split, we liked the Hotel Split (011-385-21-303-111; $69 per person for a double room and a sumptuous breakfast buffet, although we paid half of that as part of the DAN group). In Dubrovnik, we stayed at the bay-side Hotel Vis (011-385-20-414-166; $56 total for a double and very plain breakfast buffet).

WHERE TO EAT: In Dubrovnik, everyone's favorite is Nautika (011-385-20-442-526) outside the walls near Pile Gate. For folk-dance performances, if not the food, try Jadran, just inside the gate. In Split, we had exquisite seafood dinners at Sumica, in a shoreside pine forest, and at Bodun, also within walking distance of Hotel Split.

CAUTIONS: Getting wet? Take a beach towel and reef booties. Don't expect Caribbean diving; go for the antiquities, not for coral or masses of fish.

DIVING: A trip similar to the scuba diving and land excursion we made cannot yet be duplicated: No live-aboard dive boats sail there. Divers may want to head to Dubrovnik for shore-based packages, and there are non-diving cruises among the islands in addition to ferry service.

From Dubrovnik, guided dives and PADI instruction/cert-ification in the southern Dalmatians are available through Nimar (011-385-20-417-123, fax 011-20-288-57. Two to five dives are $26 per dive; a 10-dive package is $205, including weights and tanks. Between July 1 and Sept. 1, Nimar also offers guided dives from the Hotel Odisej (011-385-20-744-022) on the forested island of Mljet.

A 10-day, eight-night fly-dive-hotel package from New York to Dubrovnik is $1,449 round trip this month and next or $1,839 July through September. Included are six dives with Nimar, accommodations and some meals. Details: Croatia by Air, Land & Sea, 170 Old Country Road, Suite 608, Mineola, N.Y. 11501, 1-888-427-6284, fax 1-516-747-8367, http://www.odessamerica.com

INFORMATION: Lonely Planet's "Eastern Europe on a Shoestring" has a section on Dalmatia. In Split or Dubrovnik, hotels and travel agents have free brochures with excellent maps. English-language guidebooks are available at bookstores and newsstands for Split, Dubrovnik and the major islands. For more information, contact the Croatian National Tourist Office, 300 Lanidex Plaza, Parsippany, N.J. 07054, 973-425-0707, fax 973-428-3386, http://www.htz/hr.

For a stunningly beautiful, noncommercial introduction to Croatia's islands, see http://islands.zems.fer.hr/index.html.

-- Jo Rector and John Allen

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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